Money Alone Won’t Keep Kids in School

Question: What causes the high dropout rate in minority communities, and what can curb it?

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Pedro Noguera:  Well you know there are many factors that influence the dropout rate.  What I like to remind people of is dropping out is a symptom of a larger problem and if you don’t address the underlying causes then you never can solve that problem.  Kids don’t dropout in high school.  They typically the signs that they’re becoming increasingly alienated from school show up much earlier and the problem is that schools don’t intervene early or effectively.  Some kids leave because of the pull of the streets.  Some kids leave because they need to work to support their family.  Some kids leave because nobody at school cares about them.  They haven’t made any connections with adults, because they’re bored, because they don’t think what they’re learning is relevant or meaningful, so there are a lot of reasons why kids end up leaving school.  What I’ve found is that there are schools that serve large numbers of poor African-American, Latino kids that where they are graduating, where they are thriving and what we don’t do is learn from those schools and do more what they do and what works and what you find in those schools generally is strong relationships between the adults and the students, a real clear sense of mission about why they’re there, an understanding of how to make the curriculum relevant to the lives of those students, all the things that are lacking typically you find present and so it’s not as though it’s as hard as it sometimes seems.  I think right now we have policymakers who are kind of you know banging their heads thinking what will it take to reduce the dropout rate and I keep saying well look at the places where you have low dropout rates and do more of that.

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Question: Are high-dropout schools hurt more by insufficient external (government) or internal (community) support?

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Pedro Noguera:  Well I think it… the factors are internal and external, so for example doing work in Newark right now, Newark, New Jersey and it has high dropout rates.  One of the big factors is that kids start to realize when they’re in high school there are no jobs for them in Newark and so the… Why stay in school if you… education is not going to result in a real change in their life, either access to college or access to a job the motivation to stay in school diminishes over time.  So it’s what is going on outside of school, but also then you have parents and adults in the community who also have had experience of having education not work for them, not open doors, so what starts to happen is there is a sense within the community that education is not the pathway to success and that’s born out of experience.  It’s not a myth.  It’s true, and so what you need to do is you need to start to create a different reality by creating some schools that do in fact open doors and create pathways to opportunity for kids.

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Question: Which is a larger problem for failing school districts: lack of funding or misuse of funding?

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Pedro Noguera:  Well money is certainly important.  You know in this country we consistently spend the most money on the most affluent kids and the least money on the poorest kids, so I would say if money didn’t matter then why don’t we just reverse it for awhile and see, try it out, but nobody is interested in that, at least not in the affluent communities, but nonetheless, it’s not simply about money.  There are schools in high poverty areas that have resources and you see resources wasted or used ineffectively, so it’s money is important, but by itself it is not a solution.  It’s how the money is applied.  It’s both the efficient use of resources, but also the effective use you know and that is where good leadership is necessary.  Accountability is necessary to make sure people are doing what they’re supposed to do.  It’s essential that you evaluate to make sure that if you set up a program to help kids that there is evidence that it actually helps kids.  So I would say that money is always a factor, but it is never a solution by itself.

Recorded on January 28, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen

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Yes, combating the high dropout rate in minority communities requires more school funding. But funding alone isn’t enough.

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Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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